Learning from the Stone Age

Learning from the Stone Age

Scope AR recently launched a completely revamped, all-new augmented reality authoring tool called WorkLink Create.

Why is that you may ask? Why should you care?

In order to answer that, I need to talk to you about why augmented reality learning tools are such a great thing. 

And in order to talk to you about that I need to tell you why all the accepted instruction methods we use right now are so terrible.

“Plain English” (or French.. Or German)

If you look around at the more complex tasks in your life today you’ll find no shortage of examples of instructions. The basic model is everywhere. Listed text steps attempting to break down any process into bite size statements describing pieces of effort. On the surface it seems to be the simplest approach, what could be more basic than short sentences? If you’ve ever been in charge of writing instructions for a moderately complex task though you have an idea that it’s not entirely that simple. What you need to do is translate an inherently physical, spatial concept… ‘things’ being manipulated by hands and tools, into markings on a page. Written language of course is a pretty complex form of encoding. It takes a good chunk of the amazing brain we have to perform this particular trick, and it’s the same trick in reverse to decode that into something meaningful at the other end. You’re doing it now.. Congratulations! It’s working pretty well for these conceptual thoughts but watch someone try to read a recipe for the first time and note the puzzled frown.  Plenty has been said about the imperfections of written language, but it’s rarely more evident than when you’re trying to communicate even the mildly complicated motion of a few objects into words. 

Fortunately, we have pictures right?

“A Thousand Words”

If we return to those instructions in your daily life, you’ll note that where things get particularly tricky, pictures are added… and they do help. Your brain doesn’t naturally understand little square boxes full of color as being ‘real things’, animals certainly can’t do it, but it’s at least a shorter path for your brain to decode them into representations of the objects in question. Maybe the photos are well taken and up to date, or maybe a professional illustrator did a pretty good job of isolating the key information, but one thing is certainly true… Just as with text, the process of visually communicating through these tools is not an easy one. It takes skill and it takes time. It is immediately evident when the job has been done professionally because it takes less time for you to decode it into something you understand. Consider IKEA instructions. They’re well illustrated, technically perfect and they always are proven to contain all the information you need to not put that chair seat on upside down… when you go back to them to figure out why you put that chair seat on upside down. 

Surely video is the answer… the most modern of instructional tools.

“Youtube It”

Video instructional tutorials are a huge step up. It’s still just colors in a flat little box but it’s certainly a lot easier to understand that activity when it’s moving. There are some drawbacks of course. We don’t think about it this way since we are so used to television and film, but it would be really helpful to choose what you’re looking at exactly and from what perspective to really understand when an aspect of the instruction doesn’t seem to fit your expectation. Being able to choose where your focus is, where you view from and the rate at which that instruction progresses is just another one of those things that we give up with our modern tools. The fact is, when push comes to shove, everyone knows that the best way to learn how to do a thing is to just see someone DO it.

“The Stone Age”

Our brains are capable of some pretty impressive contortions when it comes to understanding encoded information, but they are 100% designed… hardwired in fact, to do one thing extremely well.. Understand the space immediately around us and what is happening in it. AR Instructions may seem like the height of technology, but the purpose of that technology is to eliminate all of this encoding and decoding and the effort and error that goes with it and go right back to the first primitive human showing off their technique for tool sharpening and the rest of the tribe just watching and understanding. We are very, very good at this.

For the first time in history we can TRULY show someone how to do something without being there in person. We can go one step further and show someone how to do something without the SOMETHING being there in person. Every day I see people use AR to drop a piece of equipment into their workspace, virtually of course, but then absolutely refuse to walk through it. These instructions are being understood by their viewers as real, three dimensional additions to the workplace, whether assisting their day to day activity or allowing them to train on equipment that’s 100 miles away. 

All of which bring us back to the beginning.

Scope AR recently launched a completely revamped, all-new augmented reality authoring tool called WorkLink Create. Why should you care?

WorkLink Create lets anyone learn to make AR instructional material, easily, in a web browser, with no code, no scripting and no prior training. 

It’s time to embrace a truly Stone Age level of communication.

Tell me and I’ll forget

Show me and I may remember

Involve me and I learn

— Benjamin Franklin

Achieving AR scale with Unity

Achieving AR scale with Unity

When Scope AR started in 2011, we focused on advanced standalone projects that used augmented reality technology on industrial use cases. Each project was more impressive than the last, and across many organizations we realized the real-world value of the combination of AR subject matter expertise and developer skills. Over the years since, we’ve witnessed our customer’ positive return on investment on a significant number of applications, and here are three takeaways from our experience:

  1. Augmented Reality actually works.

To us there is no question that with the right ingredients, the results can be impressive. We’ve seen significant results from customers whose users are on handheld devices only (like smartphones and tablets) and even bigger results from specialized users on hands-free/wearable devices. The right fit for this technology is generally not the first one that comes to mind for new explorers, but with some practical experience it doesn’t take long to start seeing optimal use cases.

  1. Unity is a great platform for custom development.

Unity is an amazing platform for developing customized augmented reality applications. With access to Unity developers, it is possible to create really interesting proof of concepts or dedicated applications. It may take some time to dial in the details, but Unity offers the building blocks to demo what can be done. Not only did we evolve from this approach ourselves, but we see it play out again and again with our customers. 

  1. It’s very difficult to scale custom development.

This is the big one. No matter how effective your POC, the real numbers are unlocked at scale with significant user count, manufactured product lines and maintenance procedures. If you haven’t solved for scale then you’re only left with a great demo… or a great partial solution.

Unity is powerful, but for a specialized skill set. Our solution was to make it more accessible with all of the same power. WorkLink a radical extension of Unity which allows the drag and drop creation of instruction flows, detailed procedure animations and video and imagery. It was all made in Unity and demanded no code, no scripting and no steep learning curve from its users.

When we deployed this to customers facing the scaling problem, it worked. In fact it worked so well to remove the developer skill set requirement from the AR instruction loop, that one prospect at the time said:

”We love what you’re doing. We are very interested in developing something with you… but we can’t show it to you”.

An interesting challenge. As it turns out, we were already thinking this way, and Scope AR had begun to transition from a service organization to software as a service (SaaS). With this new architecture, we could remove one of the least efficient phases of the scaling process: knowledge transfer. Even with our most experienced authors, there was a need to educate them from a cold start. All the tribal knowledge that resided in the subject matter experts at our client organizations had to be imported to ensure clear accurate instruction. Unfortunately, and there’s nowhere to hide ignorance of process in augmented reality; how things work (and when they are broken) is immediately clear when viewing in AR.

So, we gave WorkLink Create, the Unity-based authoring extension, directly to the SMEs.

With that, WorkLink Create opened the door to a whole new method of knowledge development… and by democratizing authorship to a few days instead of months or years, we managed to change the rules of the game. We saw a surge in customer-generated AR content and consumption. An amendment to our above observations:

  1. Augmented Reality still works (better every day)
  2. Unity can be a great platform for non-developers
  3. And it’s not that hard to scale!

We are proud to formalize our partnership with Unity, enabling our joint clients to scale their vision of a more effective, more remote workforce.   Please see our Unity partner page.

AR Training Without CAD Files: A How-to Guide

One of the questions we get a lot is “How do we make AR instructions if we don’t have 3D models?”

It’s a valid question. The WorkLink platform was built primarily around the concept that organizations would be leveraging their own products’ CAD models to create augmented reality training and instruction materials. Many of our clients are using it in exactly that way, and having no difficulty in achieving that workflow. If you’re in that category then congratulations! you can probably grab a coffee.

The scenarios where this approach doesn’t fit tend to be in a few general categories

  • “We need to assist our employees on equipment that is supplied by a vendor”
  • “The CAD files exist and we own them, but we are struggling to get them released to us”
  • “This equipment pre-dates our CAD software”

In actuality, most of these scenarios are likely to be short-lived. Where IP protection is a concern, for instance, CAD files can be converted and simplified at source to maximize the value to instruction while minimizing the exposure of proprietary information. In addition, the very nature of self-authoring keeps that exposure limited to your internal content authors and a pre-approved workforce working across a secure network. As the benefits of AR instruction and assistance become more commonly understood, these barriers are starting to fall.

In the meantime though, it can be extremely useful to have techniques for these situations, and we thought we would share a few, as well as publish a WorkLink project specifically made with no supplied or ‘made to order’ 3D content whatsoever as an example. We chose a basic car maintenance example, commonplace and straightforward, but also a good reference point for more complex situations.

One key thing to understand is that good AR instruction is really about adding as little to the user’s workspace as possible. While movies tend to portray augmented reality as the ability to add as much as possible, the fact is that this doesn’t work well. Our goal is to provide small, but key, additions to the space which will have maximum impact. From this perspective, having complex 3D models of the equipment is actually not beneficial at all. When working on an engine after all, the engine is there. We have no need to reproduce it. For a large variety of processes, arrows, circular beacons, basic tools and simple shapes are all that is needed to communicate everything your user needs to know… Particularly when they are animated effectively and placed exactly where the user needs them. All of these things, along with the ability to place video and images, are provided for your use in the WorkLink platform. For common objects that aren’t included, support for standard file formats makes adding 3rd party content (from public websites etc) a simple process also.

Under these circumstances, the AR author is still left with one significant challenge. You start your project, secure in the knowledge that you a combination of simple content is more than enough to communicate exactly what your end-user needs to know… as long as they are placed accurately in the workspace. Without a model of your equipment in the scene, how can you place your content? You need a reference framework of some kind… context.

There are a number of strategies for establishing this framework. One method is to take some key measurements and create some simple 3D shapes to represent key landmarks in your work area. This can be effective for straightforward situations, and if you have ready access to your equipment, some trial and error may be an acceptable approach. If the area you want to present instructions in is basically flat (or a series of flat spaces) such as a control panel for instance, it might also be an option to take photos (carefully, and square to the camera) and bring those images into your project as stand-ins. For more complex, demanding projects, it may be worth the effort to create 3D objects that are more representative of the actual equipment. 3D models can be created at various levels of detail, and there is ample middle ground between detailed CAD models and simple shapes. Although this skill set isn’t available in every organization, it’s also not particularly challenging or expensive to access. For some projects it may be worth the relatively small expense of generating some models for this purpose. This method is particularly important if your process demands an extended disassembly or assembly process, where layers of parts are needed.

For circumstances where the area is more complex, or where access is more challenging, what’s needed is some form of reality capture. This term covers a broad variety of options, but the essence is basically the same… the ability to go into a space and quickly generate a 3D model of it without any particular skills. These models can be extremely useful for providing context, but you will not have the ability to ‘disassemble’ them. These types of models will represent a contiguous surface with no recognition of where one object ends and another begins. Great for providing a reference framework, so you can use it as a map for placing your instruction, but you will likely not show this type of model to your end user.

Here are some of the major options:

Laser Scanning: If you have access to laser scanning equipment, or your budget allows contracting these services, this can be an effective way to get a surface model of a work area.

Photogrammetry: This is relatively simple process, requiring access to a camera and. Essentially the process is to take a large number of photographs (>100) of a work area, from a wide variety of angles and distances, and using generally inexpensive 3rd party software to generate a textured 3D model. Results can vary, and depending on the software you may have to manually scale the resulting model, but this technique can be quite useful in the right circumstances.

Depth Camera/3D Sensor: This is currently our preferred method. Utilizing a handheld depth camera, either built into a smartphone, or as an external accessory to a tablet or smartphone, you can essentially walk around an area and generate a simple textured 3D model ‘on the fly’. Formats used are compatible with WorkLink, so you can bring the model in immediately and use it as a quite accurate reference for placing content.

Results from all of these methods can provide workable results, but detail levels vary. The goal here is to allow a rapid reference framework to be put in place, low detail levels are entirely acceptable for the less expensive approaches.

If you’re interested in this approach, I highly recommend you check out our “A3 Maintenance Demo” using the free WorkLink authoring app. It’s designed to take full advantage of the Microsoft HoloLens, so if you have access to one, definitely use that, but you can download it on any device’s store. Log in as a guest and load the A3 project, then either use a standard Scope AR marker or “Interactive Mode” (on handheld devices) to view it. You can also see this project featured in the video at the top of this post.

The project includes a series of maintenance instructions designed to be viewed directly on the vehicle itself. We’ve included some additional content strictly to help demonstrate the concepts discussed here. The car outline is a commercial 3D model, but is included only to provide context for those viewing the instructions away from the car, and would not otherwise be needed. The engine model itself was scanned in about 15 minutes using a smartphone with a 3D depth camera. Again, when viewing these instructions on the vehicle itself, this model would not normally be included. We’ve included it in the demo to show what type of results can be expected from this sort of process, and also to help viewers understand the context of these instructions.

Visibility switches (blue spheres) are provided to allow you to show and hide the various models. Turn off the car body and engine to view the instructions as they would appear when seen on the real car.

As you will see, this approach makes for a very effective style of instruction. For many of our clients, projects like this are the answer to a difficult question, allowing them to quickly create effective instructions without the need for a lot of engineering support or external resources.

For more information on creating AR Work instructions with no coding or previous experience, check out the WorkLink page, or see our Youtube channel, and be sure to keep track of the latest Scope AR news on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter with the links below.

Graham Melley
Scope AR